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Talking Policy: Anne Marie Goetz on the Next UN Secretary-General

For the ninth time since its founding, the U.N. is in the process of selecting a new secretary-general. In the past, this process has taken place behind closed doors, and has allowed little room for the global community to participate. This time, things have changed. World Policy Journal sat down with Anne Marie Goetz, a Clinical Professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, and the former Chief Advisor on Peace and Security at U.N. Women, to speak about what revolutionary changes have been made to the appointment process, what still needs to be changed at the U.N., and the possibility of a woman being named secretary-general for the first time in history.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: This is an exciting year for the U.N. They are currently in the process of choosing the next secretary-general. Rumor has it that they may be selecting a woman for the first time in history. Can you tell us a bit of background about this selection process?

ANNE MARIE GOETZ: The U.N. has been around for 70 years, and it’s never had a woman leader. This used to be something that nobody would raise an eyebrow at, but now, it is actually almost peculiar since we now have women presidents, defense ministers, and women leading in every sector. It is really unusual to have an institution that has been led for so long exclusively by men. The terms of secretary-generals are unusually long. They are appointed for a four-year term, and they can renew, which means that we’ve only had a handful of secretary-generals over this entire period.

The thing about the selection of the next secretary-general is that it is possible this could be one of the most important decisions the world is going to make this year, and it is also possible that the decision could be made badly, and could deliver an individual who does not help us deal with the enormous problems of our day. That is why it is actually extremely interesting to get involved in the selection of the next secretary-general.

For the first time ever—in seven decades—the whole world has the opportunity to get involved in the selection of the secretary-general to a degree that has never happened before. The U.N. charter is fuzzy on the procedures for choosing the secretary-general. It simply says that members of the U.N. should submit names of candidates, and the Security Council gets to decide who is going to be the world’s top diplomat. But it doesn’t say how the Security Council makes that decision. The Council is supposed to submit a nomination to the General Assembly, but it doesn’t say whether more than one name can be submitted, or how the General Assembly is supposed to decide. It also doesn’t say that the nomination has to come from a particular region of the world, but, by convention over time, it has evolved that different regions of the world have taken terms at being privileged in submitting candidates and having candidates selected from that region. This time, it is considered to be the term for Eastern Europe.

WPJ: You mentioned that, for the first time ever, the whole world has the opportunity to get involved in the selection of the next secretary-general. That being said, it is only the U.N. that gets to make the final decision. Whose voices are the most important in making this decision?

AMG: The fact is, and everybody knows, that the way the decision is made is profoundly un-transparent and undemocratic. Within the Security Council, the most divided and important and powerful members make the final call. Really, it is between the U.S., Russia, and China. A candidate has to be found that is acceptable to these three. For example, last round, when Ban Ki-moon was selected, China indicated that it considered it to be the Asia Pacific region’s turn, and indicated that it would exercise its veto over the candidate if the candidate didn’t come from the Asia-Pacific region. This time around, Russia said that it expected the candidate to come from Eastern Europe. What is interesting is that many countries have queried the Eastern European choice, saying, “Is that really a region anymore?” Many members of Eastern Europe are members of the EU, and others are members of NATO. Many want to be members of both—much to Russia’s chagrin, of course. Culturally, it is closer to Western Europe, and there is a huge region within the U.N. that is called “Western Europe and Others,” which means, basically, Canada, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. Really, Eastern Europe has been a part of that group since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. What is surprising is that, in the last few weeks, Russia seems to have relaxed its stance on Eastern Europe, and about a month and a half ago, a non-Eastern European country submitted a candidate, and a very important one. Portugal submitted the name of António Guterres, the former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

WPJ: So what does this mean for the possibility of a female secretary-general?

AMG: Of course there’s nothing in the U.N. charter that says it should be a man, obviously. But over time, frankly, only a few proposals of female candidacies have even come up. This time around, it is very different. For starters, about a year ago, the General Assembly issued a resolution welcoming the process that was about to start for selecting a secretary-general and made it very clear that all countries submitting names of candidates should seriously consider submitting a female candidate’s name. Then, Costa Rica and Colombia formed a group of friends supporting the selection of a woman secretary-general, and it is now a group of 56 countries. This group has not said that there should be an all-female shortlist, but my own view is that there is no harm in that. That idea is strongly criticized—it has had very harsh reactions from U.N. outsiders. The group, though, has encouraged other countries to put forward the names of female candidates.

WPJ: Are there any other organizations that are pushing the U.N. toward reform, including towards the appointment of a female secretary-general? If so, what has the response of the U.N. been? Have any changes been made?

AMG: There is a really important civil society coalition beautifully titled 1 for 7 Billion, and they have also stated that the process needs to be more open and more transparent, and somebody with appropriate qualifications for the job has to be selected. They came up with a few suggestions. One, that the names of all candidates be made public. All of them haven’t been public in the past, which is extraordinary. Two, they feel that the Security Council ought to select several nominations and allow the General Assembly to choose or to vote. That proposal has gone absolutely nowhere. And three, they feel that the secretary-general term should be extended to 7 years and limited to one round only. That suggestion is very important. It is designed to stop the incumbent from promising juicy, valuable, politically powerful jobs in the U.N. to particular countries in the U.N. that support that person, which is what often happens in a secretary-general’s second term.

Their first demand has been met: There has been a lot more transparency around the selection of a secretary-general. The president of the General Assembly has started a whole page on the selection process and all the candidates’ names are up there, including their biographies. Plus, entertainingly, he has insisted that each candidate submit a 2,000 word statement outlining why they want the job. It is a wonderful idea that the secretary-general should be submitted to what everyone else is submitted to when they want a job, which is to write a cover letter. And these are public—they are online.

Second, he invited all nine existing candidates to the U.N. from April 12-14 to give a job talk. They each had a two-hour interview where they would make a short statement, and then were asked increasingly tough questions. This seems like it should’ve been there all along, but it revolutionizes the whole process because we can immediately see who is articulate, who has a good plan, who is under-prepared, who is charismatic, and who is not. This has never happened before, and I don’t think that if Ban Ki-moon had been through a process like that he would have necessarily stood out as the best candidate.

WPJ: Making the U.N. more democratic is a massive task. Are there any drawbacks or challenges to consider with regards to this process?

AMG: There is an interesting question about how democratic you want to make a process like this, because, of course, the problem with almost anything at the U.N. that is subject to the vote of over 193 countries is that the worst possible decisions are made because the easiest choice is always made—the least painful, the one that involves the least accountability.

Now, the General Assembly is not going to be voting for these candidates. The Security Council is still going to make a decision, and the Security Council decision criteria are not the best, either, for selecting the world’s most effective chief diplomat. The criteria are things like: Do you annoy the U.S. or Russia? (And if you do, you’re out.) Have you ever spoken out against them? Have you ever defended sanctions against Russia, for any reason? Have you ever criticized Chinese foreign policy? Have you ever criticized the U.S. foreign policy? What’s your stance on Israel and Palestine? If it is in any way negative toward Israel, then your chances are skippered as well.

The Security Council criteria are not about looking for someone with backbone and charisma and a strong sense of principles and justice. It is about somebody who will not raise hackles, and will probably do as he or she is told, or as instructed by major countries.

WPJ: How will the changes made this round have the ability to shape the outcome?

AMG: Those criteria aren’t going to change in this process. However, the fact that everyone is watching is going to make it harder to pick someone who is on the weaker side. At the moment, everyone really cares and wants a good leader—someone who can reform the U.N. from the inside, which is urgently needed to make the U.N. more efficient in terms of management and more effective in terms of being able to engineer peace agreements and prevent conflict, which it has been failing at miserably for the past couple of decades. Everyone wants to see someone good, and the fact that we can’t change the rules, the fact that there are no rules, is the most frustrating part about this process. We are not going to be able to change this Insider process, but we are watching to a degree that was never possible before. Now we know what is feeding in, so when we see what is coming out, there is going to be much more criticism.

WPJ: What are your thoughts on the appointment of a female secretary-general? What kinds of qualities are, in your opinion, important for the next U.N. secretary-general to possess?

AMG: About 18 months ago, longtime U.N. observer Jean Krazno of CUNY convened a group of women—I was one of them—who know a lot about the U.N., are concerned about its shortcomings, and want to promote change. We are also, incidentally, a group of women who care a lot about gender equality, and would like to see the U.N. do what it can to promote gender equality and combat gender-based injustices. In my own case, I worked for almost 10 years for U.N. Women and UNIFEM as an advisor on governance and peace and security. We discussed how the secretary-general selection process is a wonderful opportunity to finally get a good woman in the role.

In my own opinion, I would like to see a feminist in that position—somebody who is globally respected and has demonstrated a capability to push through difficult managerial reforms, and to stick to principles of human rights in everything she does. I do not want to see a woman for the sake of having a woman in that position, nor does the group that I am a part of. We don’t want to see a woman for the sake of having a woman because it is more than possible that an inadequate candidate, male or female, will be selected because he or she is an individual that major powers feel that they can manipulate. I don’t think it’s going to advance feminist causes in the slightest to see a woman in that role—there have been plenty of men, including past secretary-generals who have been in that role. There have been past secretary-generals who have also been principled, who have stood up to major interests, and who have fought to do the right thing—and I know that there are women out there who can do that.

I also feel that there is no harm in having an all-female shortlist. The world is full of highly qualified women, and there have been de facto all male shortlists since time in memoriam. There have also been de facto all white and all upper-class shortlists as well. Sometimes reversing those histories does require a strong and determined action. To have an all-female shortlist is simply to acknowledge that women have just as much talent as men. However, there’s not going to be an all-female shortlist. Nine countries have already come forward with candidates—seven from Eastern Europe, one from Portugal, and one from New Zealand. There are four women candidates on that list who are all extremely interesting and highly qualified candidates. There are also some really interesting male candidates on the list, actually. I fully expect that more female candidates are going to come forward, too, particularly from Latin America.

WPJ: What do you think of candidates on the shortlist?

AMG: Irina Bokova from Bulgaria, the head of UNESCO, is a highly respected bureaucrat and leader who has managed to make UNESCO work, which is a tough job since it was a very dysfunctional organization. But she’s turned it around and demonstrated enormous capability.

Natalia Gherman, a former foreign minister of Moldova, is by U.N. standards quite young, however is quite clear on the importance of putting a woman in the role this time, and is somebody who has come from a conflict-affected country and understands conflict.

Vesna Pusić, a former deputy prime minister from Croatia, also from a conflict country, was by far the bravest of the speakers at the General Assembly because she came out right at the beginning saying that she stands for LGBT rights and women’s rights and human equality. In her statement, she launches off by saying that the U.N. needs work and that it is in trouble. In her oral statement, she spoke about defending the rights of all, including those most stigmatized and vilified in some places (like sexual minorities). Saudi Arabia asked her whether by saying that the U.N. is a mess, isn’t she showing that she has an adversarial personality? Saudi Arabia’s representative next argued that she had been promoting values that are not universally held (by which he clearly meant LGBT issues), and we can’t have a secretary-general doing anything like that. She responded by saying that she knew she was flawed, but that she was stronger because she could see the flaws and work with them. She also robustly stuck with her support for LGBT issues, and did so again in her press conference—as did Natalia Gherman.

The fourth female candidate, Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand, is very interesting. While prime minister, she passed a number of important laws on women’s rights. She has been running UNDP for the last eight years, and has presided over some extremely painful change processes, which has made her, many would say, a controversial figure internally. She has shown that she has real determination for the job, and also knows the inside ropes. Interestingly, she hasn’t alienated Russia, China, or the U.S., which is really hard to do, while still being somebody with both spine and personality.

There are a couple of other candidates I want to say something about. One is Vuk Jeremić, also young by U.N. standards, and the former president of the General Assembly for Serbia. He came up with an agenda of speaking for youth—a huge population of our world’s population is young, and our future is in our youth. He argued we can’t keep running the world with old men talking to old men making decisions about young people—young people need to be involved in a meaningful way. He also had a really serious line about the importance of sports and the importance of physical activity in changing the world and activating youth.

The other candidate is António Guterres. What was intriguing about his presentation was his focus on the migration and refugee crisis. The whole world is structured around the idea of sovereign states and inviolable boundaries, and that, of course, is part of the problem of decision making at the U.N. where countries make decisions on the basis of purely national interest, not interests that override our nations. The limitations of that kind of mindset are demonstrated amply in our climate change crisis, and we have to get past national boundaries and sovereign thinking if we’re going to survive as a planet. I thought his focus on migration was interesting—it was kind of an indirect way to start talking about the fact that we need to change the basis of global decision-making and make global institutions much more meaningful. The refugee crisis is a symbol of the meaninglessness of these boundaries. Why is it that an accident of your birth condemns you to torture and to loss of your children in Syria, and that you are denied the benefits to those born in Canada and the US?

WPJ: Any final thoughts on the process?

AMG: We are starting to see personalities emerge, agendas emerge, and this can only be a good thing. And yes, having a woman as a secretary-general can only be a good thing. If she’s a feminist, and she’s a strong leader in terms of signaling, brightly and with high visibility, that the U.N. is stepping off on a new foot, that’s badly needed. 

*****

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

For more World Policy interviews, visit the Talking Policy archive page!

[Photo courtesy of sanjitbakshi]

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